NY Phil’s Hall Receives A Gorgeous Makeover; Now, About That Sound

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The New York Philharmonic and music director Jaap van Zweden test the acoustics of the newly refurbished David Geffen Hall. (Photo by Michael Moran)

NEW YORK — A refurbished concert hall for the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center is being unveiled this month with a completely new look — and, hopefully, improved acoustics.

Sixty years after the doors of what initially was called Philharmonic Hall first swung open, David Geffen Hall officially reopened Oct. 8 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and the world-premiere performance of a commissioned work by Etienne Charles. San Juan Hill: A New York Story pays homage to the neighborhood that was razed in the late 1950s to make way for the gleaming new arts center in midtown Manhattan. Celebratory concerts, an open-house weekend, a gala, and other events are scheduled over the coming weeks.

Phiharmonic Hall in September 1964. (Photo by Bob Serating)

The renovation, in the planning stages since 2017 and begun in 2019, was scheduled to be completed in 2024. The original timeline called for the orchestra to camp out at various venues around town for the better part of three years. But when Covid seized the city and the world, Deborah Borda and Henry Timms, President & CEO of the New York Philharmonic and of Lincoln Center, respectively, decided to take advantage of the shutdown and step up the pace of construction. Finally, something good coming out of the pandemic: The project was completed two full years ahead of schedule.

New features include an altered layout of the hall, with the stage closer to the center of the room, seating behind the orchestra, an improved seating arrangement in the hall with everyone closer to the stage, and enhanced sightlines — plus a state-of-the-art digital organ. There’s also a contemporary color scheme: a bright rose petal motif on a royal blue background on the walls and echoed on the upholstery of the chairs. The enlarged street-level lobby, which formerly had a conspicuous absence of seating, is now outfitted with a living-room atmosphere, complete with couches, armchairs, Wi-Fi, and a coffee bar. Also in the lobby: a 50-foot video wall that will livestream every New York Philharmonic concert from the hall upstairs. There’s also a small performance studio with seating for around 100 patrons, visible from the sidewalk on Broadway.

But the most hotly anticipated aspect is the quality of the acoustics.

Avery Fisher Hall in summer 1992. (Photo by Sandor Acs)

Many critics, musicians, and others with ears agree that the hall’s acoustics were in dire need of fixing — and have been since it opened in 1962. Of the opening concerts, Harold Schonberg wrote in The New York Times, “The hall had an antiseptic sound, very weak in the bass, with little color and presence. The musicians were unhappy. They complained that they could not hear each other very well while playing. During the first week of concerts, conductors, as tactfully as possible, indicated that they too were not happy with the tonal quality of the auditorium.”

The original building team included some of the best architects and acousticians at the time. So how did it get off to such a bad start? It was a competition of sorts with Carnegie Hall, fueled by a campaign led by the New York Herald Tribune. Carnegie, built in the 1880s, was the premiere concert hall in New York City for over a century. Its capacity is 2,760 seats; the original design of Philharmonic Hall called for just 2,400 seats. Apparently, a hall with a smaller capacity than the grand lady down the street — which at that moment was scheduled for demolition — was just unthinkable.

“The Lincoln Center building committee, under such relentless public pressure, instructed the architect to increase the seat-count by whatever means necessary,” wrote Christopher Blair in a 2009 article in Adaptistration, Orchestral Acoustics 101: Avery Fisher Hall.

Philharmonic President and CEO Deborah Borda. (Dario Acosta)

But the acoustician was never consulted.

More is not always better. But the builders dutifully squeezed in another 350 seats, compromising the well-thought-out acoustic design in the original plan. Turning the clock ahead 60 years, as far as the seat count is concerned, the capacity of the newly renovated hall ranges from 2,043 to 2,300, depending on its configuration, knocking out about 400 seats.

Over the years, various tweaks, fixes, and renovations were made. Though the situation was improved at each iteration, the hall still left much for the ears to desire. Even after the gut renovation in 1976, critics still complained that the sound was not up to snuff. During Borda’s first stint with the Philharmonic in the 1990s, she tried to remedy some of the problems. In 1992, Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic placed curved wooden reflectors around the stage to more effectively distribute the sound, which Borda referred to as “the bongos.” (I always imagined that they were balcony seats in which someone forgot to install the chairs.) But the issues persisted.

Determined to fix things once and for all, Lincoln Center management prepared for yet another major overhaul by offering naming rights (actually, re-naming rights) to the business magnate, producer, and film studio executive David Geffen, bringing in $100 million in the process. Back in 1973, it was Avery Fisher who donated $10 million ($64 million in today’s dollars) to fund the renovation of that decade, and whose name was on the wall from the 1970s to the 2010s.

The positive aspects of this story go beyond the early and on-budget completion of the renovation. Borda and Timms say that 6,000 jobs were created during the construction phase at a time when the effects of the pandemic had slashed employment levels to unimaginable lows. According to Borda and Timms, the project generated a half-billion dollars in economic value for the city of New York. 

On a recent preview tour, the management and design team proudly showed off the gleaming new hall, complete with “firefly lighting,” an idea lifted from the Metropolitan Opera House across the plaza, in which the retraction of chandelier fixtures signals the beginning of a performance. Gary McCluskie, leader of Diamond Schmitt Architects, the group responsible for the concert theater and master plan, pointed out the newly installed video projection capability and state-of-the-art sound system. “It’s really an opportunity to not only create a great acoustic hall for all of the repertoire of the New York Phil for the last 200 years,” McCluskie said. “It’s an opportunity to plan and create a space for making the compositions of the next 100 years as well.” Borda added: “Because an orchestra of the 21st century doesn’t just play Brahms and Beethoven and Mozart. We do theatrical presentations. We do multimedia presentations…and this hall can really make a home for us for all of that.”

Jaap van Zweden leads the second acoustic rehearsal with New York Philharmonic at the newly renovated David Geffen Hall on Aug. 16. (Photo by Chris Lee)